A Mortal Bane
Author:Roberta Gellis

“For the price, I imagine they must be,” he remarked, but there was no sharpness to his voice, rather, a good-humored acceptance. “What I cannot understand is how such an establishment came to be in this place.”


“That is easy enough to explain. The order of nuns that founded St. Mary Overy was very strict. The nuns would not permit men, except their priest, into their convent walls. When the order failed and the brothers took over the convent, they found a guesthouse outside the walls to be hard to manage. Moreover, a wealthy guest, who came often, found it inconvenient, so he contributed a sum that permitted the brothers to build a new and more comfortable guesthouse inside the walls. Since the brothers had no more use for this house, it fell back into the hands of the then Bishop of Winchester.”


“And he felt that what the priory needed was a whorehouse sharing its wall?”


Magdalene could not help laughing at the wry expression and tone. “It was not the current Bishop of Winchester who made the decision, so I never knew the man, but I can understand his problem. He could not rent to anyone who had a trade that was noxious or noisy, and in any case, there are few who would find this house useful or convenient, having no place for a stall on the road, two rows of small cells for sleeping, and no area fit for a workroom. And the building is too good to throw down. It is stone-built, with a good slate roof. Moreover, there are not many who could afford the rent for such a building—


“Ah, you pay a good rent, do you?”


Magdalene cast her eyes up to the ceiling and sighed. “Indeed we do, and—” She stopped speaking and cocked her head, then nodded. “I think that will be Sabina’s client leaving. He likes to get home before dark, and the light is almost gone. I will get some torches for us now.”


She rose and took from the highest shelf several torchettes made of rounded blocks of herb-scented wax, each with a many-stranded wick, affixed to a wooden holder. These she set into iron loops on the walls, one at each side of the room and one near the door, before she lit them from the fire with a wax-tipped spill. As she moved about, she noticed her guest looking at the corridor with considerable interest; Magdalene turned away to take candles down from the other end of the shelf. If he expected to see someone who frequented the establishment, he was doomed to disappointment. All guests were shown out through the back door just so they would not need to pass any other client waiting in the common room. He seemed to realize this, because a second brief glance told Magdalene that he was smiling too, and had lifted his wine cup to his lips. A few moments later, footsteps came down the corridor. Magdalene set the candles into the holder on the table but did not light them and returned to her seat.


“I am here by the fire, Sabina,” she said to the tall, slender woman who entered the room, “and we have an unexpected but most welcome guest.”


“Welcome, indeed,” Sabina said, turning toward them and coming forward slowly.


Magdalene’s gaze flashed toward the man and saw his eyes widen, but she was not sure what had surprised him. Sabina was very beautiful. Her skin was flawless, its delicate pallor almost luminous, and although her thick hair did not reveal its rich red highlights in the dimmer light, it still flowed in waves and curls over her back and shoulders down to her hips. Moreover, her short nose and her full lips, turned up at the corners in the bare hint of a smile, gave that loveliness a look of saucy merriness. Still, the man might have expected beauty for the price she had set, so likely it was the fact that Sabina’s eyes, although her head was turned in their direction, were closed. The doubt was settled when he jumped to his feet and extended a hand, not to take her arm, but to touch it gently.


“Let me help you find a seat,” he said.


Sabina smiled and raised her hand to take his. “Thank you, my lord. Not only are you kind, but you know how to offer help to a blind person. My seat is the one with the lute. Since I cannot embroider, I make myself useful in another way. Would you like me to sing or to play?”


She allowed him to seat her, although Magdalene knew she was perfectly capable of finding her stool and removing the lute from the seat without knocking it to the floor. And when he said he would like to hear her, if she was not tired, she laughed in a low, musical murmur.


“We are not overburdened here,” she said. “If I were tired, I could have gone directly back to my room. My ears are keen. I heard that Magdalene was talking to someone. I came because I was willing to entertain you in any way you desire.”